My top five anti-love poems

After last week’s Valentine’s Day love poem offerings (which you can read here), I thought a look at the flip-side was in order. So let’s get a little Alanis Morissette for a moment, and look at how some of the masters have handled the uglier moments. Because we’ve all been there. 🙂

1) Afraid to make a move: T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I first read this during my sophomore year of high school, when pretty much all thinking teenagers are in this paralyzed state. Here’s an excerpt:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

2) Mystified by love: Gavin Ewart, “Ella Mi Fu Rapita”

I love the last line of this poem, excerpted here:

And what can the lover do, when the time’s come,
when THE END goes up on the screen? …
Get friendly with men in bars, telling
how sweet she was, praising her statistics,
or admiring his own sexual ballistics?

No, that’s no good. Love lasts – or doesn’t last.
…Lovers must never crumple up like cissies
or break down or cry about their wrongs.
If girls are sugar, God holds the sugar tongs.

3) Unrequited love: Elizabeth Bishop, “Insomnia”

I love this excerpt, which describes the magical powers we’ve all longed for:

So wrap up care in a cobweb
and drop it down the well

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

4) Angry love: Margaret Atwood, “You fit into me”

This poem manages to capture all the intensity and anger of love gone wrong, in only four lines:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

5) Jilted love: Louise Gluck, “Hesitate to Call”

(No commentary needed here.) 🙂

Lived to see you throwing
Me aside. That fought
Like netted fish inside me.
It lives in me.
You live in me. Malignant.
Love, you ever want me, don’t.


My top five love poems

I’ve selected my top five love poems – one romantic, one intellectual, one humorous, one passionate, and one familial – in the hope that these will fill your Valentine’s Day needs. Here they are:

1) Romantic – “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond” by E.E. Cummings

I first heard this poem in the 1980’s Woody Allen movie “Hannah and Her Sisters,” in which a man gives this poem to a woman he hopes to seduce. It works. 🙂 The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose…


(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

2) Intellectual – “Variations on the Word Love” by Margaret Atwood

Love poems that are a bit more intellectual appeal to me since I’m more of a realist, less of a romantic. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

This is a word we use to plug
holes with. It’s the right size for those warm
blanks in speech, for those red heart-
shaped vacancies on the page that look nothing
like real hearts.

Then there’s the two
of us. This word
is far too short for us, it has only
four letters, too sparse
to fill those deep bare
vacuums between the stars
that press on us with their deafness.
It’s not love we don’t wish
to fall into, but that fear.
this word is not enough but it will
have to do. It’s a single
vowel in this metallic
silence, a mouth that says
O again and again in wonder
and pain, a breath, a finger
grip on a cliffside. You can
hold on or let go.

3) Humorous – Bob Hicok’s “Mortal Shower”

This is a funny poem that reminds us how everyday moments add up into love. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

… I’m

in Pittsburgh tonight
and with her,
mirrors don’t scare me,
room service is a gas
because she’s alive, I’m a giant,
a tight-assed
titan because she’s alive
and says

come home, the Honda needs
new brakes, a robin flew
into the window today
but shook it off, just
dizzy, stunned
by reflection.

4) Passionate – Anne Sexton’s “Us”
This one speaks for itself! Read the whole text here, or this excerpt:

I stood up in my gold skin
and I beat down the psalms
and I beat down the clothes
and you undid the bridle
and you undid the reins
and I undid the buttons,
the bones, the confusions,
the New England postcards,
the January ten o’clock night,
and we rose up like wheat,
acre after acre of gold,
and we harvested,
we harvested.

5) Parental love – “Santa Barbara Road” by Robert Hass
I love Hass’s idea of being defined by the people who love us. Here’s an excerpt:

Household verses: “Who are you?”

the rubber duck in my hand asked Kristin

once, while she was bathing, three years old.

“Kristin,” she said, laughing, her delicious

name, delicious self. “That’s just your name,”

the duck said. “Who are you?” “Kristin,”

she said. “Kristin’s a name. Who are you?”

the duck asked. She said, shrugging,

“Mommy, Daddy, Leif.”